Review: Imperium at The RSC

Review: Imperium at The RSC

by Richard Lutz

The Roman politician Cicero certainly lived and worked in tumultuous, if not crazy, times.

He survived rebellion, civil war, roaring mob riots,  appalling military defeats, amazing military victories and, above all, intrigue.  He worked with or against the raging egos of Caesar, Pompey, a young Augustus and Cato.

The novelist Robert Harris imagined Cicero’s life in his 1000 page trilogy Imperium.  Now, The Royal Shakespeare Company has put the written word on the Stratford stage in a huge two-part play. 

The production is painted on a broad rich canvas: there are 23 characters and a portrait  of ancient history embroidered by a welcome easy-on-the-ear script that allows the audience to be slowly introduced to the wide range of historical goodies and baddies  that bound on to the stage. It is a great piece of theatre, all 7 hours of it. It’s a blockbuster. 

The story is told through the eyes of Cicero’s wry slave Tiro (Joseph Kloska) who pushes the plot forward, gracefully, wittily portraying a profile of his highly talented but vain boss.  His Cicero is a great but flawed orator and Republican who fought off dictatorship from a thuggish Marc Antony, an uncontrollable Catiline, the clever Julius Caesar and the shrewd Octavian.

So, a fast-paced marathon through Roman history just before Christ was born. But also a mordant cheeky peek into the great strengths and deep  weaknesses of a major historical figure whose words are still used today: ‘Stupid people vote for stupid people.” Cicero says at one point.  Think that one through in today’s world.

Richard McCabe as Cicero successfully pulls off a gargantuan role, onstage for much of the seven hours and his acting  still fresh, still vital. His scribe Tiro never allows the action to flag- he even manages  to shut up  his paymaster Cicero when windbaggery gets the better of him as he  reminds the audience, time after boring time, about his long forgotten victories over  enemies. "Remember," he intones interminably, "it was me that saved The Republic".

Set design by Anthony Ward is ominously overseen by a pair of giant baleful mosaic eyes to remind characters and audience alike  that the Roman state overwhelms everyone. Over the stage looms a sphere reflecting  digital and video images such as birds, fire, or armies to add visual depth. The backdrop is dominated by a series of high steps that can transform into The Senate, a castle’s ramparts or Roman streets.

Imperium, despite its length, rarely flags. The production’s adaptation, by Mike Poulton (who did Wolf Hall recently), is easily digestible, enjoyable and deserved the standing ovation as he walked us through Cicero’s rise and inevitable demise 2000 years ago.

At The Swan Theatre until Feb 10. Tickets right here.